' ' Cinema Romantico: Birth

Tuesday, March 22, 2011


So before we talk about "Birth" (2004") let's talk about the remake of "The Stepford Wives" (2004). The only reason I even saw it was because I lived in Des Moines then and my friend Dan and I wanted to see a movie and, well, not a lot comes out in Iowa's most populated city and so we saw "The Stepford Wives." And it was horrible. No quarrel. Except...there is that part at the beginning where Nicole Kidman's TV executive is fired and this scene is done in a close-up on Kidman where she keeps this smile frozen to her face that says simultaneously 1.) This isn't really happening 2.) Everything's gonna be all right because I can just lie to myself, right? and 3.) Die, person who's firing me. And then she loses it. My God, what a moment. I can remember kind of scrunching up in my seat and in-audibly gasping as it unfolded. Afterwards, when Dan and I stopped for a lager, all I wanted to do was talk about that shot.

So now let's skip ahead to "Birth", a film whose look is as austerely elegant as its leading lady. Nicole Kidman is Anna, one of those penthouse New Yorkers flush with cash, and she and her fiancĂ© Joseph (Danny Huston) are going to this concert except they arrive late and....well, I probably need to tell you what happens before they arrive at the concert.

What happens is this: Anna's mother (her majesty Lauren Bacall) is having her birthday party and to this party comes a 10 year old resident of the building named Sean (Cameron Bright). Funny, Sean was Anna's husband's name, her husband who died 10 years ago. Except it's not funny. Because Sean pulls Anna aside and says "I'm Sean." You know, that Sean. Her husband Sean. Re-incarnated. Or something.

Anna laughs it off, as you might assume, but Sean persists. Anna tells her family, not just her mother but her brother (Arliss Howard) and her sister (Allison Elliot) and Joseph and so Joseph tracks down Sean and his parents and explains the situations and calls in Anna and Anna asks for an apology and Sean's dad tries to force him to provide the apology but over and over Sean says he can't do that. Finally, upset, Anna and Joseph walk away and, at the last second, Anna catches a glimpse of Sean collapsing. Now back to that concert...

It starts in a wide shot of the concert hall. Anna and Joseph are late and so they scurry down the aisle and reach their row and people stand and they slide in and the camera pushes in and finds them - specifically Anna - as they sit down and the camera stays right there with Anna and what director Jonathan Glazer asks of Ms. Kidman is to convey via her face in a single take that what just happened has actually kinda convinced her that 10 year old Sean is her Sean. She does it. She doesn't over-act, indeed, she hardly does anything, letting confusion, though the sort of confusion where you are confused as to why you are so certain, tremble on her lips and then - then! - for, maybe, a quarter of a second she smiles and then Joseph leans in and the smile's gone but...wowza. Damn, that Nicole Kidman can act. I re-wound and re-watched. Breathtaking stuff.

"Excuse me while I act the s--- out of this scene."
And it's not even as good as her monologue later when she goes to Clifford's brother (Peter Stormare) and his wife (Anne Heche, sinisteria) to explain the situation and ask Clifford if he can come and tell 10 year old Sean to go away because she cannot face falling in love with him again. In many ways, this monologue sums up "Birth." She is sincere but she is confused and she is laughing at herself because she is both sincere and confused.

Seriously, re-consider the scenario. A 10 year old kids advises he's her deceased husband and then tells her not to marry her fiancĂ©. This easily could have digressed into by-the-numbers thriller territory or turned Shyamalan-esque but Glazer presents it and his actors handle it realistically and un-ironically and gently and, crucially, ambiguously. Oh, dear God, the ambiguity. This is an end that will wrankle people. Understandable. I, however, loved it. Why? One of Mankind's most pertinent questions, of course, is what comes after this? What's out there in the Great Beyond, the Ever After?

"Birth" answers: Who the hell knows.


Andrew K. said...

Oh, Nicole is great here such a brilliant perf.

On Stepford Wives, though - isn't Glenn Close brilliant in it? Come on, isn't she?

Nick Prigge said...

I'm sorry but aside from that one Nicole Kidman moment - which was entirely worth the ticket price - the movie did not do it for me in any way, shape or form. Maybe we can just blame it on Bette Midler?

Derek Armstrong said...

Birth is tops on my list of movies to see again as soon as I possibly can. It is SO good. And Kidman is SO good. If you haven't seen Rabbit Hole, do. While we're on the topic, don't go see the other movie in which Cameron Bright plays a catatonic reborn child/person, which is Godsend. That one stinks to high heaven.

The most interesting thing to me about Birth is how different it is in every way I can imagine from Glazer's previous film, Sexy Beast. I really don't like Sexy Beast at all -- major structural problems in the narrative, though I won't try to convince anyone of this because I know I hold the minority opinion. However, Birth -- what a movie. Amazing stuff.

Nick Prigge said...

Loved "Rabbit Hole." A lot. It was in my Top 5 for 2010. And don't even get me started on that screenplay not getting nominated for an Oscar. Travesty.